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Early Cuban Revolution paved road to sexual liberation

Lavender & red, part 91

Published Feb 21, 2007 10:49 PM

The first revolutionary step toward the liberation of sexuality, gender expression and oppressed sexes in Cuba was the dismantling of the sex-for-profit industry and interconnected gambling dens and drug-distribution networks. This concrete, material first act by the Cuban Revolution unshackled human bodies, desire and gender expression from capitalist commodification, commercialization and exploitation.

For almost half a millennium the island had been manacled by colonialism, capitalism and imperialism. The holds of their ships brought enslaved peoples from Africa. Their advanced weaponry was cocked and trained on the enslaved laborers. The ideological lash of the Roman Catholic Church sliced to the bone. White supremacist, racist ideology, patriarchal oppression of women and state-enforced repression against same-sex love ruled the economic and social order.

Just as colonialism and imperialism left the island’s fertile soil cultivated as a single-crop plantation, class enslavement tilled the fields of culture.

When the revolutionary process began, it had to start from there.

Before the 1959 Revolution, the burgeoning sector of the Cuban economy was Havana’s prostitution industry, booming with Cold War consumption—the largest in the Caribbean—and the gambling, drugs and tourism connected to it. U.S. crime syndicate bosses and wealthy Cubans with connections to Batista’s regime owned the profitable operations.

Researchers Lourdes Arguelles and B. Ruby Rich note that this illegal economy “employed more than two hundred thousand workers as petty traders, casino operators, entertainers, servants and prostitutes.” (“Hidden From History”)

Many were homosexual—male and female—and many male homosexuals were feminine. Crime bosses also exploited tens of thousands of heterosexual women and men in the prostitution industry. All performed to the sexual whims of the fathers and scions of the U.S. and Cuban ruling classes.

Cuban citizen, translator and interpreter Leonardo Hechavarría, and Cuban defender, typographer and gay rights activist Marcel Hatch, sum up that era: “Before the 1959 Revolution, life for lesbians and gays was one of extreme isolation and repression, enforced by civil law, augmented by Catholic dogma. Patriarchal attitudes made lesbians invisible. If discovered, they’d often suffer sexual abuse, disgrace in the community, and job loss.

“Havana’s gay male underground—some 200,000—was a purgatory of prostitution to American tourists, domestic servitude, and constant threats of violence and blackmail.” (“Gays in Cuba, from the Hollywood School of Falsification,” walterlippmann.com)

Arguelles and Rich explained: “It was just a profitable commodification of sexual fantasy. For the vast majority, homosexuality made life a shameful and guilt-ridden experience. Such was gay Havana in the fabled ‘avant la guerre’ period.”

Reactionaries prey on dislocation

For male homosexuals in Havana, particularly those who were feminine and/or cross-dressing, social outlets for congregating were limited once this large-scale illegal economy was shut down.

As a result, Arguelles and Rich explained, this “prolonged the relationship between the declining underworld and more progressive homosexuals, locking the two groups together for sheer companionship and sexual pleasure.”

That was truer for Cuban males than females.

The two researchers noted, “Homosexual perspectives on the revolution could shift according to class interests.”

Middle-class homosexuals whose privileges were threatened by agrarian and urban reforms banded, they said, with “the remaining veterans of the underworld” to oppose the revolution.

“Some veterans of the old underworld enclave joined counter-revolutionary activities or were pushed into them by the CIA,” Arguelles and Rich reported. “Not a few of the progressive homosexuals became implicated by default in counter-revolutionary activities and were even jailed.

“Young homosexuals seeking contact with ‘the community’ in the bars and famous cruising areas of La Rampa were thus introduced to counter-revolutionary ideology and practice. One example of such a dynamic is the case of Rolando Cubela, a homosexual student leader who fought in the revolutionary army but was later enlisted by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro.”

The two researchers concluded, “Homosexual bars and La Rampa cruising areas were perceived, in some cases correctly, as centers of counter-revolutionary activities and began to be systematically treated as such.”

Cuban women organize for gains

The overall situation for Cuban women who loved women had its own characteristics.

Under the triple weight of the patriarchies of colonialism, capitalism and imperialism, a dynamic women’s movement emerged in Cuba as early as the 1920s and Cuban women won the right to vote and be elected to public office in 1934. (thegully.com)

After the 1959 seizure of state power, it was Cuban women as a whole who became the driving force to break the chokehold of centuries-old patriarchal economic and social organization, and the attitudes about women and femininity it engendered.

The Cuban Women’s Federation formed quickly after the Revolution in 1960. It exerted immeasurably more power because it was a part of the Revolution, not apart from it.

At a 1966 leadership meeting of the Federation of Cuban Women, President Fidel Castro observed, “Women’s participation in the Revolution was a revolution in the revolution, and if we were asked what the most revolutionary thing that the revolution is doing, we would answer that it is precisely this—the revolution that is occurring among the women of our country.”

Hechavarría and Hatch stressed, “Following the Revolution, women won near full equality under the law, including pay equity, the right to child care, abortion, and military service, among other historic gains, laying the basis for their higher social and political status.

“This foundation, a first in the Americas, played an important role in women’s greater independence and sexual freedom, a prerequisite for homosexual liberation. The Revolution also destroyed the Mafia-controlled U.S. tourist driven prostitution trade that held many Cuban women and gay men in bondage.”

Hechavarría and Hatch added, “The Revolution undertook to provide ample education and employment opportunities for female prostitutes.

“Advances for women in general were naturally extended to lesbians, and many became among the most ardent defenders of the Revolution.”

Revolutionizing the sexes

Cuban men, as well as women, had been treated as the property of other men—the patriarchs of property.

Revolutionary Cuban men have carried out their own work to consciously build the consciousness of a “new man” on the basis of new social principles.

Ché Guevara, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution as a whole challenged all Cuban men to examine male consciousness, attitudes and behaviors.

This revolutionary effort, which continues today, aimed to change old ways that men were taught to interact with women. Like the Revolution itself, this work is most profoundly meaningful because it is a process, not a single act.

The Revolution challenged the biology-is-destiny “natural order” ideologies of colonialism, capitalism and imperialism that elevated patriarchs to rule.

The Revolution challenged the reactionary biological determinist concept that men are innately superior and women are naturally submissive.

But genuine economic and social equality for women, and profound change of the attitudes of men, could only be generated by economic and social reorganization that could lift the standard of living for all. Imperialism was determined to thwart and sabotage that work at every moment. U.S. finance capital cinched the island in an economic noose, and the Pentagon cordoned the island, attacking overtly and covertly.

As Washington and the Pentagon ratcheted up the pressure on Cuba, and the CIA having spearheaded the commando invasion at Playa Girón, the entire island’s population had to be organized and mobilized to meet two huge tasks in 1965—military defense of the Revolution and harvest of the crop that sustained economic life.

Everyone—of all sexes, genders and sexualities, from children to elders—was called up for these two life-and-death tasks.

Inside Cuba, trying to fit many thousands of urban homosexual and/or transgender males into agricultural work sharpened a social contradiction.

Outside Cuba, propagandistic exploitation of this contradiction led to the single greatest slander against the Cuban Revolution in the history of the workers’ state.

Next: Vilification of the Cuban Revolution.

Parts 1-90 can be read at workers.org. Look for the lavender and red logo. Parts 86-90 also explore sexuality, gender and sex on the island before and after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

E-mail: [email protected]